Where Does a Lie Start? Untruths, Half-Truths and Strategic Self-Presentation in Ethnographic Fieldwork
Schlagworte:Ethnography, fieldwork, lying, interlocutor, writing
We are said to be living in a ‘post-truth’ era, where the line between fact and fiction has become blurred, an era in which ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have become part of a political discourse underscoring emotions, to the detriment of evidence. This proclivity towards muddying the waters of truth is not exclusive to populist politicians and internet trolls. In 2018, an international scandal erupted when it was revealed that German journalist Claas Relotius had embellished and even fabricated his field pieces. In anthropology, a debate erupted in 1983 when Derek Freeman critiqued Margaret Mead’s work in Coming of Age in Samoa. Where blame was cast on the author in the Relotius case, Mead was accused of naivety and misinterpretation of ethnographic material. But what happens when interlocutors themselves embellish, hide, or misrepresent reality? Where does a lie start and where does truth end? How does this affect the ethnographic account? And most importantly: can or should ethnographers try to verify the veracity of the things they are told? The premise of this paper stems from the author’s own attempt to bridge the gap between anthropology and narrative journalism by pitching a story encountered in the field to a journalism magazine. The main character was later revealed to have told a lie and the aftermath of this discovery serves as the starting point for this reflection on truth and ethnography.
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